Small Asteroid to Fly by Earth on March 8

February 29, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

asteroid 2013 TX68
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But astronomers are unsure how close it will get.

A small asteroid that flew past Earth at a distance of 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers) two years ago is making a return visit — although it could be a touch closer this time.  A previous press release stated that the asteroid would be passing Earth on March 5, however new observations have been made available refining not only its flyby date, but its orbital path as well.

On March 8, asteroid 2013 TX68 could fly past Earth as far out as 3 million miles (5 million kilometers) or as close as 15 thousand miles (24 thousand kilometers) above Earth’s surface — which could make it visible with a really good telescope.

So, why is its track so unknown?  NASA only discovered the asteroid three years ago — hence the ever-so-catchy name, asteroid 2013 TX68 — so they have not had much time to observe it.  It was first spotted approaching Earth on the nighttime side of the planet, but after just three days of tracking, the asteroid moved into the daytime sky, meaning it could no longer be monitored.

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In that short period of time, astronomers were able to map its trajectories with a slight margin of error.  However, new observations from archived images provided by the Pan-STARRS asteroid survey, have allowed scientists from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studied (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to refine their distance and flyby predictions.

Luckily for us, it poses no threat to Earth.  

“We already knew this asteroid, 2013 TX68, would safely fly past Earth in early March, but this additional data allow us to get a better handle on its orbital path,” said Paul Chodas, manager of CNEOS in a press release.  “The data indicate that this small asteroid will probably pass much farther away from Earth than previously thought.”

2013 TX68 is not a large asteroid, measuring just 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter, but it’s larger than many that have hit Earth. In comparison, the asteroid that broke up over Chelyabinsk, Russia three years ago was approximately 65 feet (20 meters) wide and resulted in a shockwave that broke windows and damaged buildings, injuring about 1,500 people.

If this asteroid were to enter Earth’s atmosphere, it would likely produce an air burst with roughly twice the amount of energy of the Chelyabinsk event.

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But don’t worry, there is nothing to panic about. CNEOS has determined that 2013 TX68 will not impact Earth over the next century.

“There is no concern whatsoever regarding this asteroid — unless you were interested in seeing it with a telescope,” said Chodas.  “Prospects for observing this asteroid, which were not very good to begin with, are now even worse because the asteroid is likely to be farther away, and therefore dimmer than previously believed.”

However, asteroid tracks are updated frequently and it’s estimated flyby distance could change before March 8.  So, don’t put away your telescope just yet, there still may be an opportunity to see it.

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